Oprah's big gamble

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 14, 2011 - 3:03 PM

Winfrey is going into high gear to sell her OWN channel. But is there enough of her to go around?

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Oprah Winfrey

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LOS ANGELES

Oprah Winfrey, the master of getting guests to open up, has a few things of her own to say. Did I say a few? During a press conference here last week in conjunction with the launch of her OWN network, Winfrey was asked to reflect on her childhood dreams.

Her answer clocked in at more than 18 minutes. During the breathless sermon, she gabbed about:

Watching TV at a Sears & Roebuck store in small-town Mississippi because her grandmother thought owning a set was like inviting the devil to move in.

Her long-ago fantasy of hosting "Good Morning America," only to be told that there wasn't room for a black anchor as long as Bryant Gumbel was on the air.

Her heartbreak over the fact that Michael Jackson never truly reveled in the success of "Thriller."

Why she stopped signing autographs for her studio audience.

Her fascination with brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor's book "My Stroke of Insight."

Why she never watches TV in bed.

Her secret recipe for buttermilk biscuits.

A step-by-step explanation of "Inception."

Actually, I'm not sure about those last two topics, because I started paying more attention to my fellow reporters, waiting for them to collectively squirm, cough a few times and then start grousing about the microphone hog on stage. Didn't happen. Everyone was in a "O" trance, the same one she conjured at a cocktail party attended by Mike Tyson. He might as well have been a busboy. Everybody massed around Winfrey as if she were handing out keys to a fleet of new cars.

That power, of course, is why some pundits believe a network that revolves around her personality -- an unprecedented attempt -- can work and draw top-of-the-line talent.

"If Oprah had asked me to ride a unicycle naked and backwards in the night, I would have said, 'Where do I sign up?'" said "Survivor" creator Mark Burnett, who has added "My OWN Show," a search for a new TV personality, to a heavy production workload that also includes "The Apprentice."

So far, the OWN Network has attracted such Oprah regulars as Dr. Phil and Suze Orman, as well as the Judds, Ryan O'Neal and Shania Twain.

What it has not yet attracted is a rabid audience.

The New Year's Day premiere drew 1 million prime-time viewers, but since the initial hype, the numbers have taken a dive. Three days later, the prime-time audience was only about 315,000, roughly a quarter of the number watching Lifetime Network on an average night -- and only a bit better than SoapNet, which is soon going away. Among viewers you'd expect to be Oprah's core audience -- women age 25 to 54 -- the network drew only a 0.2 rating, a number that I probably could attract by chugging a glass of milk.

Keep in mind that Oprah's own syndicated weekday talk show, now in its final season, averages 7 million viewers. Paul Levinson, a media studies professor at Fordham University, told the UPI this month that Winfrey is taking a real gamble.

"Wherever Oprah is going with the network, because the industry is changing so drastically, she'll probably never have as many viewers as she does right now," he said.

Hallmark Channel tried building its network around Martha Stewart last year, a move that the industry quickly labeled a disaster.

Can OWN live without Oprah?

Winfrey swears she's not worried, and there's reason to believe her. According to Daily Finance, an AOL financial site, Procter & Gamble has pledged $100 million in ad sales on OWN over the next three years and Discovery Communications, partner of the fledgling channel, has lent it $189 million.

"Obviously, ratings are important. Numbers are important," she told the assembled critics. "They're not as important to me right now as they might be to you, and I know that's what people like to write about. 'Well, the number's here and then they dropped off.' I'm not even concerned about that. What I'm concerned about is: Could we get people to the channel and continue to build a channel with programming that is meaningful to our viewers?"

The answer: Maybe, but only if Oprah superimposes her image every couple minutes on every single show, much as she does on "Master Class," an interview series focusing on people she admires, such as Maya Angelou.

Winfrey's endeavors have rarely succeeded when she's not actually onscreen. She disappeared after the first episode of her 2008 reality show "Oprah's Big Give," and the series soon disappeared, as well. The reason Oprah is on every cover of her magazine is that her mug can move more copies than Scarlett Johanssen can.

OWN's initial slate of shows is not terrible -- including the investigative reporting series "Our America With Lisa Ling" and "The Gayle King Show," a live, daily program hosted by Oprah's best bud -- but I'm guessing a good chunk of viewers tune in hoping Oprah will pop out from behind the curtain with a plate full of cookies. The more they learn that's not going to happen, the less likely they'll watch.

Oprah may learn that for better or worse, fans are not all that fascinated by her favorite books or her best friends. They're fascinated by her. Unless she can find a way to be onscreen 24 hours a day, OWN may be over.

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 Follow Justin on Twitter: @nealjustin

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